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Friday, November 30, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 p.m.

U.K. phone-hacking scandal panel urges media regulator

By Henry Chu
Los Angeles Times

LONDON — Britain should set up an independent regulator to monitor its freewheeling media and prevent media abuses such as the phone-hacking scandal that exposed unethical and sometimes illegal newsgathering practices, a senior judge said Thursday after a yearlong investigation.

The new regulating body should be established by law but exclude politicians and editors to guarantee its independence from government and industry pressure, Lord Justice Brian Leveson said in a much-anticipated report that blasted the aggressive tactics often associated with British tabloids and paparazzi.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who commissioned the judge's inquiry, shied away from the proposal, which put him at odds with phone-hacking victims, the political opposition and his own deputy. Cameron told Parliament that stronger oversight was needed but warned that enshrining it in law could be a dangerous first step toward state control of the media.

"We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press," Cameron said.

The proposal was the centerpiece of Leveson's 2,000-page report, an examination of media practices and ethics that was spawned by the phone-hacking scandal. The judge spent months hearing testimony from leading politicians, newspaper proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch and high-profile figures, including actor Hugh Grant and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who spoke bitterly of being hounded by reporters and photographers.

Leveson said he recognized the need for a vigorous media in a democratic society to hold the powerful to account and to bear witness. But irresponsible parts of the media had "wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people" through their intrusions on privacy and relentless pursuit of scoops.

He singled out the Murdoch-owned News of the World for particularly harsh criticism. Evidence has emerged of widespread criminal conduct at the now-defunct tabloid in the form of hacking into the voice mails of celebrities and others.

Revelations that the paper had accessed the cellphone messages of a kidnapped 13-year-old girl, who was later found killed, caused a massive uproar last year. In response, Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old tabloid, shelved a bid to take over satellite broadcaster BSkyB and was summoned to answer questions before Parliament.

Leveson's proposal envisages a regulatory authority to replace a media complaints commission that is widely recognized as having been a failure. The new regulator would have the power to levy fines of up to $1.6 million and demand prominently placed corrections or retractions by newspapers.

Although politicians would not participate, the new body would have the backing of a law passed by Parliament.

Cameron said even that step, which could entail lawmakers determining the regulator's powers and its composition, might lead to more government interference in the news media. His concern echoes the reservations of news organizations, which have suggested a stronger form of self-regulation, and some civil-liberties activists.

For Cameron, the new report adds to what has been a politically sticky situation since the phone-hacking scandal broke.

He has been embarrassed by revelations of his warm relationship with Rebekah Brooks, who headed Murdoch's British newspapers before she was forced to resign in disgrace because of the scandal. Cameron's former senior communications aide, Andy Coulson, who once served as editor of News of the World, has also been implicated.

Brooks and Coulson were in court Thursday on charges of bribing public officials for information when they worked at Murdoch-owned publications. They deny the allegations.

By balking at a regulator rooted in law, Cameron came under fire from hacking victims and from the opposition Labor Party.

More unusually, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the head of the Liberal Democrats, stood up in Parliament and publicly disagreed with his boss, highlighting the tensions within Britain's coalition government, which is led by Cameron's Conservatives.

Clegg joined Labor leader Ed Miliband in calling on the prime minister to accept Leveson's recommendations.

"A free press does not mean a press that is free to bully innocent people or free to abuse grieving families," Clegg said.

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